Criterion Prediction #226: Last Hurrah for Chivalry, by Alexander Miller
Title: Last Hurrah For Chivalry
Director: John Woo
Cast: Damian Lau, Wai Pak, Chin Yuet-Sang, Lau Kong
Synopsis: Surviving an assassination attempt on his wedding night, the wealthy-yet-devious Kao hires a pair of skilled martial artists – Chang a, self-styled rebel, and Green, a playful assassin who is constantly drunk – to protect him and exact revenge on the man who plotted the initial attempt his life.
Critique: John Woo may know action better than anyone else in the film industry. He paid his dues, like so many great directors to have emerged from Hong Kong in the seventies/eighties era (the Cinema City contingent alongside Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, etc.), churning out genre fare with a herculean prowess. Despite being synonymous with balletic gunplay, dual-wielding pistoleros, and whooshing vistas of choreographed violence, in the mid-seventies he was crowned the “new king of comedy.” Amid middling jokey action flicks, Woo hit a stride with a duo of period wuxia titles – an early Jackie Chan vehicle Hand of Death and Last Hurrah For Chivalry. The latter might not have Chow Yun-Fat packing a pair of Berettas, or any guns for that matter (which is an odd prospect for a John Woo feature); still, this early outing is loaded with the director’s hallmarks of kitschy male bonding, classical notions of heroism, honor, and duty. It could be easy to discount Last Hurrah for Chivalry; its veneer is that of another wuxia film from a period where the genre started to waver in popularity. However, there’s a vein of sincerity in the work of John Woo that’s complemented by his adoration for the work of Sam Peckinpah, Chang Cheh, Akira Kurosawa, and Jean-Pierre Melville that never faults toward imitation or mannerism. You can play referential connect-the-dots, in the gathering of swords-for-hire that echoes Seven Samurai, the duty-bound martial arts world populated by machismo alliances that veer on homoerotic and is much inspired by Chang Cheh, and the taciturn commitment of its characters that recalls the best work of Melville. Last but not least, the explicit abundance of stylish violence, and code-bound mercenarial psychology, of course, akin to Sam Peckinpah. Even the grey-clad ninja assassins that pop up in the first act are modeled after those in the 1975 film The Killer Elite.
The simplistic narrative moves with a propulsive pace thanks to the endless onslaught of action, comedic asides, and inventive set design. One standout showdown containing a three-way standoff with a candlelit hall evokes an air of gothic horror as Chang and Green face off with a narcoleptic swordmaster. Green’s penchant for boozing is cartoonishly charming, and the trio of leads Damian Lau, Wai Pak, and Lau Kong have brilliant chemistry.
Woo culls from the American west as well as his Chinese folklore and yet his sensibilities are authentic and committed, his aesthetic evolution would grow, but this early gem is a minor masterpiece.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: With the inclusion of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, Dragon Inn, and more recently Jackie Chan’s Police Story 1 & 2, it looks like The Criterion Collection is finally starting to embrace martial arts/wuxia cinema. This pattern is reflected by the titles introduced by The Masters of Cinema Series, shortly after they release A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn Criterion followed suit. Same with Police Story 1 & 2, seeing as The Last Hurrah for Chivalry is also in the MOC library let hope this is another case of distribution foreshadowing. Plus, the many martial arts films released in North America are thanks to Weinstein’s Dragon Dynasty line, despite hosting a modicum of classics of the genre it has the Weinstein stench. Not to mention the bonus features, that are very Bey Logan centric, another scumbag in the Weinstein cadre.